Elon Musk demonstrates why Twitter users need to beware of 'Twibel'

The perilous waters of Twitter libel have ensnared many a high-profile victim and it appears that the Tesla tech titan, Elon Musk, may be its latest.

Will Elon Musk be the latest person to fall foul of 'Twibel' asks Rory Lynch
Will Elon Musk be the latest person to fall foul of 'Twibel' asks Rory Lynch

Musk became embroiled recently in an ugly spat with one of the heroes of the Thai cave schoolchildren rescue.

Vernon Unsworth, a British citizen living in Thailand, was reported to have been instrumental in helping the Thai authorities in their epic rescue attempt of 12 children who became trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave complex in July.

Unsworth has extensive knowledge of the cave complex and was reported to have helped plan the rescue mission.

He was also responsible for contacting the British dive team that conducted the high-risk rescue.

The contretemps began when Musk publicly offered the use of a bespoke submarine in the rescue attempt.

Unsworth ridiculed the offer, telling CNN that it was "just a PR stunt that had absolutely no chance of working", concluding with the barb that he could "stick his submarine where it hurts".

Musk fired back with a series of seemingly frenzied and incendiary tweets, which accused Unsworth of being a "child rapist" and a "pedo guy". Despite removing these tweets, Musk then chose to re-light the fire by tweeting to his multi-million Twitterati following: "Don’t you think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?".

To compound this, Musk then publicly rebuked a Buzzfeed journalist, telling him to "stop defending child rapists".

The unsurprising consequence of these tirades took the form this week of a libel and slander suit filed by Unsworth against Musk in California.

It is reported that a similar suit will be filed in the English High Court.

These libel suits based on social media platforms are becoming increasingly common now that such platforms are so ubiquitous.

Users can be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking their post cannot cause real harm, as such tweets are both ‘social’ and written from the safety of their bedrooms.

However, the global reach of platforms like Twitter means that libellous tweets can potentially cause greater harm to a person’s reputation than a newspaper or magazine, which normally just has a national readership.

This is especially the case for those that are defamed and who have an international reputation to protect.

Those partial to antagonistic musings on social media should beware of one of the first Twitter libel (or ‘Twibel’) cases, involving the blogger and author Jack Monroe’s success against the notoriously outspoken then columnist Katie Hopkins.

The test in English libel law is whether the comments constitute ‘serious harm’ to a victim’s reputation.

The judge in this case ruled that the serious harm test could be extended to include ‘real and substantial distress’ and that such harm did not need to be ‘grave’.

It would be no surprise if Musk’s tweets caused Unsworth real and substantial distress, which puts the iconic entrepreneur at real risk in any English libel proceedings.

The swirling deep of libel law needs to be respected, and even tech-savvy cult figures are not immune to its perils.

Rory Lynch is a solicitor in the media team at Seddons

Thumbnail image ©Scott Olson/Getty Images

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